A version of this article first appeared in eB-21, published 10 times a year in Europe by TBC Research .Based in London and San Francisco, TBC Research helps senior business professionals make more informed technology decisions through its magazine, research, and events portfolio.
At a recent partners' conference in Seattle, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's evangelist extraordinaire, talked about the tremendous job the company had done in building the UK Government Gateway. Listening to Ballmer, you got a clear sense that the Gateway project was unique, and a real feather in Microsoft's cap.
But why, of all the projects Microsoft is working on today, did Ballmer pick the Gateway project? Is it really that special? To understand why it might be important, you just have to look at the reams and reams that those in the know--the analysts--have been producing recently about enterprise portals.
Nobody in Seattle dares question Ballmer. Which is possibly why nobody had advised him that the Gateway project has so far proved to be something of an embarrassment for the British government. Its lead partner, Compaq, threw in the towel last year and the resulting disarray compromised the government's ambitious plans to deliver all its services electronically.
If successful, the Gateway will be available to the public via a Citizen's Portal linking around 1000 government Web sites, cutting out a lot of hassle in the interaction between people and bureaucracy. The trouble with government is that you have to interface with so many different departments, none of which are connected. The portal gets around this through what it calls Life Episodes. It sounds like a TV soap but what it does is tie together packages of services and information that are related to major milestones in the lives of people. For example, it offers a life episode to people who are moving house which leads them to sites about house prices, local schools and transport, plus a pilot change-of-address service which streamlines the process of telling key departments when you've moved.
If you imagine the complexity of building a single system that did all of that, you can immediately see that it would be prohibitively expensive to build, and completely impractical to operate. As a way round this, a portal takes existing systems, whether Web-enabled or not, and presents their content in a unified manner. Further, the user can customize the portal for themselves without requiring changes in the core systems. For example, a citizen can choose to view life episode information in Welsh, should they think that Anne Robinson is not looking. Or they can tell the portal something about themselves so it takes them to the part of the portal that is personalized for them.
If it can work for government, think of the number of businesses that can use this kind of system. After all, most businesses have their key company data and processes stuck inside a variety of disparate, often incompatible, business systems. If a business process cuts across more than one system, it is either expensive to make the join, or else manual processes get invoked. Portal technology enables businesses to think about using the same information in a variety of ways. In effect, it acts as an electronic window into the inner workings of the company.
But portals have their own challenges. For one thing, they are dependent on the role of the user, whether employee, customer, supplier or partner. In addition, links between systems need to be flexible, because users' information needs can change. A particular combination of data sets that works well today may be quite inappropriate tomorrow, requiring changes in the way the portal interacts with the underlying systems. But an even bigger challenge for portals is to make them interactive. Today, portal technology can access underlying systems and present information or services in one direction, but portals will become really useful only when they enable two-way interactions to take place.
The trouble with guys like Ballmer is that once they start talking it takes something like an earthquake to stop them. Oddly enough, that's exactly what happened in Seattle: an earthquake punctuated the proceedings. It seems even the gods of technology will only take so much hype.
A little modesty, candor and realism on the part of people like Ballmer would go a long way in helping people see how projects like the Citizen's Portal might one day be truly important but are today still in their infancy.